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Heliconia adflexa, Coban, Guatemala, Hotel Monja Blanca, FLAAR, by Nicholas Hellmuth

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Reports by FLAAR Mesoamerica
on Flora & Fauna of Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo
Peten, Guatemala, Central America

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Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, palmetto palm, found in savanna east of Nakum Mayan ancient city

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, palmetto palm, in Peten, only found in savannas

When we finally reached the savanna east of Nakum (Peten, Guatemala) we were amazed to see a species of palm I have never previously found anywhere at Yaxha, Nakum, or Naranjo areas of this large national park. Surely this palm will be found elsewhere in the park but for now this is a great find. We are checking to see what savannas exist in or physically adjacent to the outside of the nearby Tikal park (because if there are savannas inside or estimating that the pine trees at northeast (just outside) then there surely will be Acoelorrhaphe wrightii there also. This is because pine trees occur in this part of Peten almost only in a grassland savanna; and the same savannas almost always have Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, palmetto palm.

But in the meantime, we are very happy to have found the palmetto palm in Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo. It was a rough hike, with the final several hundred meters trying not to fall down the steep fractured edge of an unexpected deep geological fault line (on the hill directly at the edge of the flat savanna).

I found this savanna on the aerial maps of Instituto Geografico Nacional (Guatemala). We will be publishing reports on everything our team has discovered on the initial visit plus what we find when we return.

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, palmetto palm, Savanna east of Nakum, Peten, Guatemala.

Acoelorrhaphe wrightti Palmetto palm at Savanna, Nakum-Yaxha Park, Peten. Photo by Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth using an iPhone Xs

Many different names for most plants

Lots of names for most plants of Mesoamerica: depends whether you are in Florida, Silver saw palm, or Guatemala, palmetto palm. Other names include paurotis palm. Local names also depend what part of Mesoamerica you are in: tasisté is one. Té or ché both mean tree (in most Mayan languages).

Somewhere I thought I saw Pimento palm as a name for Acoelorrhaphe wrightii but when you Google Pimento palm you get the Genus species name Schippia concolor. So I went elsewhere to look and found that botanist Harley Harris Bartlett uses the name (but spelled pimenta, not pimiento) pimenta palm for Acoelorraphe pinetorum (1935: caption to Plate 2 and to Plate 2). The concept of pine area as species name is probably meaning palm tree near pine trees??). Acoelorraphe pinetorum is the old name of the 1930’s; most of these palm trees are near pine trees in Belize.

Bartlett spells the genus Acoeloraphe; the correct spelling that Google wants to see is Acoelorrhaphe. Yet both spellings are found in older books. And www.ThePlantList.org of course tells you clearly that the correct botanical name today is Acoelorrhaphe wrightii (Griseb. & H.Wendl.) H.Wendl. ex Becc. A dozen other plant names are synonyms (www.theplantlist.org/tpl1.1/record/kew-2153).

We would not recommend using the word pimenta palm because you either get allspice tree or a hot chile pepper in Google returns. Palmetto is a better word. Or Silver Saw palmetto (www.palmworld.org/view_object.php?p=MjQ4)

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm, is any part edible?

Most palms of the Mayan areas have one or more edible parts. We will do more research to learn whether the ancient Mayan people of Nakum could have, or would have, eaten part of this palm.

Another medicinal plant of the Maya: Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm

For thousands of years thousands of Mayan people lived in the Nakum area so now we can add another medicinal plant for them.

We estimate there are between 500 and 600+ medicinal plants used in the Mayan areas of Mesoamerica. Several hundred are still used today, but every year fewer are utilized, as the grandmothers and grandfathers are the primary individuals who know which plant for which illness or skin condition.

Some of these plants could provide medicine to cure serious diseases. We have been working on making our list of medicinal plants and as soon as realistic funding available we can have not only a list, but also a complete bibliography about what lab experiments have already been accomplished, plant by plant, around the world.

Most of the initial medicines of Europe are from medicinal plants of the Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. Obviously the original medicine of India, China, and most other countries was primarily plant-based.

Additional uses of Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm

As is typical of many palm trees of the Maya areas, Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm can be used for house construction. Plus you can make various products. But since there are so many other palms more common in Guatemala, you will unlikely find this particular plant used locally for roof thatch or for handicrafts. But in Belize this tree is growing close to towns, villages, and cities, so it is more likely used still today.

Where can you find Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm?

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm is found in Lacandon areas of Chiapas (Cook 2016: 117) and in many other parts of Mesoamerica. We are still working on a bibliography (plant by plant, and ecosystem type by ecosystem type; FLAAR Mesoamerica has an experienced team of researchers).

This Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm grows here in the savanna east of Nakum because it has evolved the ability to survive soil that is seasonally wet or occasionally flooded. They like full total sun: all the palmetto palm trees that we saw were in the middle of the savanna, not at the far edges. But since there is so much sun in this part of the world, I would not be surprised to find some Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palms on the edges of the savanna also, in the occasionally shade of a Haematoxylum campechianum tree (which are scattered throughout the southern part of the bajo; we have not yet explored the central or northern part).

We will also check if Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm grow in the shade of the Crescentia cujete trees. These calabash trees are the most obvious trees in the entire savanna, along with all the beautiful clumps of Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm.

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, palmetto palm, Savanna east of Nakum, Peten, Guatemala.

Acoelorrhaphe wrightti Palmetto palm at Savanna, Nakum-Yaxha Park, Peten. Photo by Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth using an iPhone Xs

Where can you find Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm?

Since is native to Florida, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean islands, it has evolved to survive in various diverse ecosystems (as long as water is available during its growth and occasionally a lot when grown).

There is no salt that we know of in the soils of Yaxha aguadas since this area is far far from the Caribbean coast and far from Salinas de los Nueve Cerros (an area of black salt to the western part of Peten).

The savanna near Laguna Yaloch is near the same Rio Holmul which is not far from the savanna east of Nakum where we found Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palms. The diversity of ecosystems parallel to the curling path of the Rio Holmul and its branches is impressive: mostly bajo with thick entangled vegetation, but also the savanna of impressive size near Nakum.

We do not have all the aerial photos of the entire path of the Rio Holmul from Tikal area or the Rio Holmul northeast of Naranjo (majestic ancient Mayan city in the Yaxha Nakum Naranjo park) to the Belize border, but it would be worth searching the western area of the Rio Holmul to see if more savannas are to be found there.

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii is drought tolerant since many years the savannas get no rain

August through December 2018 and January-February 2019 were among the driest months that I can remember for this part of Peten. It rained only once or twice some of these months; or at most once a week in the wettest of this unexpected dry wet season.

Yet all the Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palm in the savanna seemed healthy and happy when we found them in February. This may be because the savanna soil may have access to water dripping down from the nearby hills (long after it rains). Or the soil simply may be able to store some wetness for a while.

Most savannas are burned by local people

Local hunters like to get rid of the grass so they can see the game animals (so they can shoot them). So we are told that most savannas (and possible sibal areas also) are burned every year. We were thus lucky to see the grass at its natural knee-height for the savanna. It is helpful to protect the vegetation to protect the wild animals.

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii trunks can be reddish tint

I was pleasantly surprised to see a red color on part of the trunk of these palmetto palm trees. Thus these palms can make a great garden plant. But do not take them from any wild forest. Try to find seeds or find them in a plant nursery.

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii grows in clumps (clusters)

Guano palms grow “hundreds in one ecosystem” but each tree is separate from all the others (even if entangled because of the thickness of the bajo or hillside forest vegetation). Same with corozo (cohune) palm trees: could be close to a thousand individual trees in the dense areas where they are 90% of the vegetation: called corozal or corozera (singular for the area, since it is one area that gets the name for the hundreds that are near each other).

But Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palms, in this savanna, always grow in a clump. However I estimate that each tree is an individual (even if it happens to bump into another one nearby). Same with corozo palms: hundreds or thousands within a square kilometer in “corozals” or “corozeras.” But each tree is independent even if growing next to another. But neither guano nor corozo nor escobo palms grow in the same kind of almost conjoined clumps as do the Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palms.

With Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palms, they grow in clusters. I did not notice any single individual independent trees (though I would not be surprised to find a single tree, where the others have died or been chopped down or otherwise destroyed).

Bactris Palms

Bactris species of palms has many local names, Huiscoyol is one. These dense stands are typical of how this spiny palm tree grows along the Rio Icbolay.
Photographed by Dr. Nicholas on May 31,2018 with a Nikon D810, Lens Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM, f/8 y 1/250 ISO 1250.

Bactris palms

Photographed by Melanny Quiñonez on May 31,2018 with a Canon, Lens AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED, f/4 y 1/80 ISO 4000.

Huiscoyol (Bactris species) also grow in clumps: with so many thousands of needle-thin and full length spines that you have to be very careful). But so far there are not enough Bactris palms found in the park area to see whether they grow in clumps (as they do along rivers). We found dense clumps of Bactris palms several meters away from dense clumps of Guadua bamboo along the Rio Icbolay, east of Parque Lachua, Guatemala. Rio Icbolay is a tributary of the Rio Chixoy. All this is in the area where southwestern part of Peten borders on northwestern part of Alta Verapaz.

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, palmetto palm, Savanna east of Nakum, Peten, Guatemala.

Spiny bamboo, growing in clumps along the Rio Icbolay.
Photographed by Melanny Quiñoñez with a CANON EOS 6D, lens AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO200 on May 31, 2018.

One of our plant scouts lives on the Rio Icbolay, so that’s how we got to see, experience, and photograph the Bactris and Guadua bamboo along this totally non-touristed river.

The Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palms are not very high, some are up to 5 meters, I doubt higher than 6 or 7 meters. We would need to physically measure them to comment further. Obviously lots of younger trees, so not as tall as the older ones.

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palms grow near Crescentia cujete (calabash trees)

In a moist savanna near Laguna Yaloch in the Holmul area of northeastern Peten the researchers found Acoelorrhaphe wrightii palms in same grassland as Crescentia cujete, guarumo, and Ceiba. But as we will discuss in the eventual full report (in .PDF format), guarumo and Ceiba “grow everywhere” so are not in any way whatsoever indicative of a savanna ecosystem. But the savanna east of Nakum is the first place that we found Crescentia cujete growing wild in Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo. So Crescentia cujete is definitely a savanna indicator (in this part of Guatemala; of course jicara and especially morro trees are planted around Mayan houses to supply containers to drink cacao and for their seeds).

The savanna near Laguna Yaloch also had ferns, Eleocharis sp (polol) and aster (Wahl, Estrada-Belli and Anderson 2013). We had only a single hour to spend in the Nakum savanna since there was no known trail here and our helpful guides thus had to hike in every direction to figure out how to find the savanna. Then it turned out that there was an enormous geological fault line on a steep hill overlooking the north side of the savanna. It took a while to figure out how to find a way to hike down this hill without falling into the abyss or sliding on the dry leaves which cover the forest soil. And, once we got to the savanna, we had to figure out how to climb the fault line to get to the top of the hill so we could hike the several hours back to the camp area at Nakum.

Savanna Ecosystem features Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, palmetto palm

Everything noted in savannas of Peten and Belize (not always correctly; so I do not associate Ceiba or Cecropia with a savanna; they are “everywhere” in a dozen eco-systems.

Common names

Which have we found so far in the savanna east of Nakum

Uses, and comments

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii

Palmetto palm

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii

Medicinal, construction

Bucida buceras

Bullet tree, pucte



Byrsonimia crassifolia

Nance, craboo


 Edible fruit

Crescentia cujete 

Calabash tree, jicaro; relative of Crescentia alata.

Crescentia cujete

Very useful to make cups, musical instruments

Curatella americana

Sandpaper tree, haha, chapparo


Sandpaper leaves; also flavoring for cacao drink

Eleocharis sp, polol



Many grasses are usable for baskets and comparable woven products.

Ferns (no genus suggested)

(Wahl, Estrada-Belli and Anderson 2013). (Estrada-Belli and Wahl 2010: 7).


There are so many tiny ferns no way to know even genus; for giant ferns, we found incredible forest in Aguada Maya near Poza Maya (between Yaxha and Nakum).


(Estrada-Belli and Wahl 2010: 7).


Maybe Viguiera sp.?

Pinus caribaea

Local pine tree


So far not one single pine in Yaxha area

Quercus oleoides

Oak tree


Oak would not surprise me, but not yet documented for Yaxha.

Haematoxylum campechianum, palo de tinto, palo de Campeche, logwood, is a tree of bajos; not of savannas; but since many savannas merge into a bajo, you can find Haematoxylum campechianum trees along the edge(s) of a savanna (as we found at the savanna east of Nakum). But I do not include palo de tinto as “a tree of the savannas.”

To learn more about aster in Peten, would need to do considerable research in works by Blake over a century ago. The PhD dissertation of Akpinar (2011: 85) mentions an aster seed for Peten.

If you look at savannas in other parts of Mexico or other parts of Mesoamerica you will understandably find additional plants listed. Often that is because the soils and seasonal climate is not the same as Peten or Belize. But, nonetheless, it always helps to know what plants to look for in a Peten savanna because unless you are looking for it, in the mass of entangled plants you might never notice it. For example, we should look for:

Cladium jamaicense, sawgrass, more a feature of a sibal (cibal, cival).

Coccoloba barbadensis, uvero

Palm by Palm, making list of all palm trees of the Yaxha Park

Our major goal is to make a list of all trees of Yaxha. We estimate, based on lists of nearby areas of Guatemala, that about 200 species of trees are present. Obviously we also wish to make a list of all other plants, but with over 1800 species of other plants (not counting mushrooms and lichens and other thing which are “not plants”). Field trip costs, staff, research team, getting back and forth, operating overhead, books we need to buy, camera equipment average about one thousand dollars a tree (the field work cost is over $20K a month since the staff work all month doing the research and then identifying everything photographed during each monthly field trip of about a week). There is not (yet) enough Internet strength of solar energy to charge our camera batteries and computers (yes, we have portable batteries; yes we have solar panels at the camp: but we have sophisticated digital camera equipment of a level most projects are not familiar with, since FLAAR has focused on digital photography technology trends for over 25 years).

So as soon as a kind, considerate, and helpful individual, foundation, university, of other entity can provide funds for the remaining 100 trees and remaining 1700 plants, we are doing the best we can: to our knowledge we are the first project to document and photograph the savanna east of Nakum.

Corozo palm, guano palm, escoba palm, bayal palm and three species of xate palm are obviously present (everywhere except in the savanna). Huiscoyol (Bactris species) are very common along rivers elsewhere in Peten, but unexpected rare in the Yaxha-Nakum part of the park we had to accomplish many field trips before we found any. Now we have between 9 and 12 more palms to find.

Introductory Bibliography on Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, palmetto palm

With 200 trees and 1800 plants, it takes a while to do each needed bibliography. But here are a few titles.

  • Balick, Nee and Atha
  • 2000
  • Acoelorrhaphe wrightii is listed on page 194.

    Available online:
  • ESTRADA-BELLI, Francisco and David B. WAHL
  • 2010
  • Prehistoric Human-Environment Interactions in the Southern Maya Lowlands: The Holmul Region Case Final Report to the National Science Foundation.

    Figure 21 is a wonderful photograph; first, it is large enough (half page size). Second it is adequately exposed. But most important of all, this helpful photo shows lots of Acoelorrhaphe wrightii around what I estimate is a single Crescentia cujete tree. What is notable is that these palms are NOT in clumps: there are lots of them; they are near each other, but none have their trunks touching each other (their leaves, yes, but not their trunks).

    The caption of this photograph (captions are not under the illustrations but are in order before the illustrations start): 21. Fire scarring of woody taxa (Crescentia cujete and Acoelorrhaphe wrightii shown here) on the periphery of the wetland surrounding Laguna Yaloch (no page numbers in this part of the report).

    So this helpful field work is further documentation that Acoelorrhaphe wrightii prospers in wetlands. Thus it was sheer luck that April through December 2018 and January-February of 2019 were so dry that we could drive to Nakum in August through December (almost every month but one) and both January and February (though our 4WD pickup trunk was rented, so it was not fully equipable for deep-rut roads like this route; this route is destroyed by sports-4WD macho-vehicles whose wide and excessively high tires leave deep deep ruts.

Acoelorrhaphe wrightii (Griseb. & H.Wendl.) H.Wendl. ex Becc.

Guatemala, Petén, Rio Pucte, on river bank
Guatemala, Petén, Sayaxche, Rio Pucte camp, in tintal, 1 km. south of the camp, 200m east of the river
Guatemala, Petén, El Ceibo, bordering Rio San Pedro, about 500m of the village
Guatemala, Petén, Tikal National Park, 46 km, on Brecha (J) Petrolera -- pinal Bajo de Santa Fe


First posted March, 2019


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